Sunday, December 30, 2012

Obama's latest trip to Fantasyland

The President's Weekly Address yesterday was all about the consequences of going over the "fiscal cliff" for middle class America:
But we’re now at the point where, in just a couple days, the law says that every American’s tax rates are going up. Every American’s paycheck will get a lot smaller. And that would be the wrong thing to do for our economy. It would hurt middle-class families, and it would hurt the businesses that depend on your spending.
And he's absolutely right here, taxes will go up for a majority of Americans--including most of the middle class--if no deal is reached before the new year. But as I've noted, that's exactly what should happen for people who insist on an all-encompassing Federal Government empowered to solve every problem that society has (or that some simply believe society has).

In that regard, Obama continues to offer up a "balanced plan" to save the middle class from tax increases, cut deficits, and continue to grow the economy:
It’s a balanced plan – one that would protect the middle class, cut spending in a responsible way, and ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more. And I’ll keep working with anybody who’s serious about getting a comprehensive plan like this done – because it’s the right thing to do for our economic growth.
Of course, there is no actual spending cuts in Obama's plan; the cuts are all either in the rate of growth of spending or are tabled into the future. The central thrust of the plan remains the same: tax the rich. But what about the economic growth component? Is there any validity in the idea that such a plan will help the economy?

In a word, no.

And primarily, this is because Obama, his administration, and many of his supporters remain clueless about the economy, its current state, and the consequence of specific policies for growth. As an example of the last, in this very short address the President calls for yet another extension of unemployment insurance benefits. I realize there are some progressive/liberal economists who argue that such extensions are economic stimuli, but at this point in time--following extension after extension--it's just not a tenable position to hold, in the least. Because on top of these extensions, we've had "stimulus" spending, entitlement growth, and a payroll tax holiday across the past four years, all of which were supposed to help grow the economy. And where are we know, as another year of progressive rule is about to begin?

The President would have us believe that the economy is growing in a real sense, but he--and his advisors--are ignoring all of the data that says exactly the opposite:
[Money manager John Hussman] notes that most of the forward-looking indicators, including “industrial production, capacity utilization, real disposable income, real personal consumption, real sales, retail and food service sales, and real manufacturing and trades sales” are all pointing down. 
The Economic Cycle Research Institute agrees, and recently announced that a recession may have begun as long ago as July. The combined economic signal coming from industrial production and personal income, noted ECRI in a recent report, “has never occurred outside a recessionary context in over half a century - but it’s occurred in every recession.”
That's right. I don't mean to bring everyone down to start the New Year, but it is quite likely we are in another recession. Thus, the economic pattern under Obama: recession, stagnation, recession. The dropping unemployment rate has been used as a club by the Administration with which to beat economic nay-sayers over the head, but as I--and many others--have pointed out, the drops in the rate are coming almost entirely at the expense of the labor force participation rate. Indeed, as the above article notes:
Missed in most recent jobless reports was the news that the number of employed people in the United States, age 25 to 54, actually fell by half a million - before seasonal adjustments - from October to November.
This signals both a weak labor market and a weak economy. All of the "created jobs" touted by the Administration are largely meaningless, because they represent part-time work for the extreme ends of the labor market (the young and the old) and because they are barely sufficient to keep pace with population growth. The economy is not in danger of some sort of total collapse, but it remains weak. And--something Obama gets right, for once--it remains fragile.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Demagogue Cliff

There really is no "fiscal cliff" to speak of. It's a manufactured event that simply reflects a poorly conceived--and last ditch--plan to increase the debt ceiling from back in 2011. The goal was to force the hands of Congress and the President, with regard to the steadily growing national debt, to solve the problem, i.e. lower--or at least stop growing--the debt. On a year-in, year-out basis this means lowering the deficit.

But note: this was never really about decreasing federal spending overall; such an option was never made available, was never really put on the table. Why? Because we are addicted to spending as a nation and a people. We expect the government to have money to spend, always and for all things. Consider the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. It was indeed widespread and serious. And it is certainly a legitimate function of the Federal Government to step in, to lend a hand and provide resources of all sorts.

And where did that money come from? One way or the other, it came from the pockets of our children and grandchildren. For all of the revenues taken in by the Federal Government--through taxation and the like--were already accounted for. Indeed, future revenues are already accounted for, already spent. As I noted previously--a little over a year ago, actually--the much-vaunted Payroll Tax Holiday was basically the same sort of thing: a huge chunk of change that went directly to the national debt.

Why?

Because the Federal Government saves nothing. It spends every last cent it takes in, and then some more on top of that. So what is really on the table for these fiscal cliff talks? Two things: tax increases and spending cuts in the future (or cuts in the proposed rate of growth). And in fact if we go "over the cliff," that's exactly what we will get: immediate tax increases, future cuts (that likely will never happen), and some cuts in current rates of growth (meaning more spending, just not way more).

Given this reality, here's a question: why all the fear among politicians about going off the cliff? People imagine this as some sort of mile-high cliff that--if one fell off--means a crushing fall. In reality, it's more like walking up a steep hill, then stepping off the curb. Sure, you might stumble if you aren't paying attention (and right now, everybody is paying attention), but it's hardly the deathly serious event it is being portrayed as.

Wait, I take that back. It is deathly serious to some people: our leaders in Washington, D.C. Not because of the spending cuts, but because of the tax increases (the end of the Bush tax cuts). Let's be crystal clear about this point, too: going over the cliff means returning to the tax rates of the Clinton era. And that means an end to the 10% bracket. The lowest rate would be 15%. In and of itself, this one rate change means everyone would owe more taxes. Everyone (granted, many low-income earners would still end up not owing anything). The rates for other brackets would also increase, including a new top rate of 39.6% (as opposed to the current 35%). So, the wealthy (Obama's "millionaires and billionaires") would see the biggest increases by far. Remember when the cuts were decried for disproportionately favoring this latter group? So pay no heed to pundits and politicians now saying exactly the opposite. They are, quite simply, liars.

Still, there's no getting around a reality: a majority of citizens will owe more taxes if the Bush cuts are allowed to expire. "Majority" is the key word, for it also means a majority of voters and encompasses the middle class as a whole. And that's it in a nutshell. Even though the elections are over, no one wants to be held responsible for "raising taxes on the middle class." Can you think of a politician who successfully campaigned on such a theme in recent memory? It's okay to call for raising taxes on "the rich"; there are enough people easily swayed by class warfare rhetoric. But no one--especially in a tough economy--is going to be successful in politics these days by claiming that the middle class "isn't paying their fair share." Right?

Well, I guess that depends on whether or not one can successfully present such an idea in the proper context. Because here's the truth of it: if people really want an ever-expanding Federal Government with more and more programs, with money to spend on pretty much everything and they don't want a crushing debt burden...

Darkness falls

One of my favorite movies of all time is John Carpenter's The Thing, a remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 classic The Thing From Another World. It's the story of a research station in the Antarctic that is attacked by an alien life form capable of assuming other forms and imitating them. The story line becomes one of deep paranoia--as anyone could be the alien creature--in a world of claustrophobia, amid isolation and endless expanse.

In the end, the alien is defeated--for the moment--but the station goes up in flames, while the final two survivors share a drink as they await the end of the fire and their own certain death. There's very little humor in the movie, no happy ending, and a great deal of sheer terror (both for the people in the movie and for the audience). I like to watch the movie--I watch it once or twice a year--late at night, by myself and in darkened silence, so as to absorb the feel of it.

And even after all of these years, after having seen the movie at least twenty-five times, there's still something very unnerving about that "feel," about watching the build-up to the climatic end with a fade to black that really is exactly that in the world of the movie. Hope? It's for suckers. Bravery and honor go unrewarded; indeed, cowards and heroes share the same fate with no means for those who may come later to decipher who was who. And again, the victory--over the alien--may only be an ephemeral one.

The movie was largely panned by critics when it hit the theaters. It was a high-budget production (for 1982) that barely made a profit in its theatrical release. Yet today, it remains widely popular, having actually been recognized as one of the best Sci-Fi movies of all time (by a number of different groups/people), one of the scariest movies of all time, and indeed even one of the best (top 500) movies of all times by some.

Take a look at the top grossing movies from the same year. As far as major moments go in the film industry, 1982 was chock full of them with films like E.T., Ghandi, and The Verdict all having been released in that year (all three are in AFI's Top 500 Films of All Time). Another film released in 1982 is Bladerunner, an equally dark film that did better at the box office than The Thing but still was not in the top 20 highest grossing list (though it comes in at #50 on the AFI list).

I happen to be a huge Bladerunner aficionado, as well. And it remains a so-called cult classic. The other movies mentioned above are likewise well-deserving of the praise they receive. But none of them moves me like The Thing, none of them are--in my estimation--as timeless in terms of what they say about the human condition.

As we approach yet another new year, as the U.S. teeters on the edge of a "Fiscal Cliff," as Europe continues to topple over one of their own, even as nations desperately try to cling to the edge, as we struggle to hold on to vestiges of tradition and community in the face of modernity and the continued rise of anonymity, it is perhaps worth remembering a hard truth: every person really is an island, under the right set of conditions.

What we do in life rarely--if ever--echoes through eternity, there is naught but the moment and our own consciousness. In that moment, in every moment, there is a choice to be made. That choice may be conditioned by many, many factors but it is still a choice, such is the nature of free will. But sometimes, there is no way out, there is no good choice to be had when the weight of the world is crushing down upon us. And no matter what we do--or do not do---no one will care, no one will really know. We live with only ourselves and our time is short.
If you have seen truly where the matter lies, then leave behind your reputation and be content even if you live the remainder of life, however long [it may be], as your nature wills.--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Yes, The Thing is a tale of stoicism, a philosophical tradition that has become largely irrelevant in the past several decades. A good life is its own reward, no matter how long or short that life is, no matter if one dies peacefully or in extreme agony, no matter if one is loved or hated, no matter if one is rich or poor. We want to believe in--we desperately need to believe in--things like karma, fate, and cosmic justice. They are illusions. Pain and suffering can come to the noble as easily as the wicked, so too can riches and happiness.

New Year's Eve is upon us, the time for making resolutions and promises rarely kept. I offer one resolution for all, an ancient prescriptive for the self, not for achieving some sort of mythical Nirvana, but for simply finding peace with the world and one's limited place in it:
Know thyself.
Cheers, all.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Begun, the Bubble Wars have...

What's a "bubble"? Not in the soapy water sense, but in the financial or economic sense. Here is Investopedia on the matter:
1. An economic cycle characterized by rapid expansion followed by a contraction. 
2. A surge in equity prices, often more than warranted by the fundamentals and usually in a particular sector, followed by a drastic drop in prices as a massive selloff occurs. 
3. A theory that security prices rise above their true value and will continue to do so until prices go into freefall and the bubble bursts.
Nasdaq says something similar:
A market phenomenon characterized by surges in asset prices to levels significantly above the fundamental value of that asset. Bubbles are often hard to detect in real time because there is disagreement over the fundamental value of the asset.
Finally, we have the Financial Times Lexicon:
When the prices of securities or other assets rise so sharply and at such a sustained rate that they exceed valuations justified by fundamentals, making a sudden collapse likely (at which point the bubble "bursts")
The basic idea is that the costs for something go up at a drastic rate, costs that people/investors are willing accept, to the point that the current realistic value of those somethings is far surpassed. At that point, the bubble "bursts" as the market for the overpriced somethings collapses. The quintessential historical example is the Tulip Bulb Bubble in the 17th century Netherlands:
Bulb prices rose steadily throughout the 1630s, as ever more speculators wedged into the market. Weavers and farmers mortgaged whatever they could to raise cash to begin trading. In 1633, a farmhouse in Hoorn changed hands for three rare bulbs. By 1636 any tulip--even bulbs recently considered garbage--could be sold off, often for hundreds of guilders. A futures market for bulbs existed, and tulip traders could be found conducting their business in hundreds of Dutch taverns. Tulip mania reached its peak during the winter of 1636-37, when some bulbs were changing hands ten times in a day. The zenith came early that winter, at an auction to benefit seven orphans whose only asset was 70 fine tulips left by their father. One, a rare Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen bulb that was about to split in two, sold for 5,200 guilders, the all-time record. All told, the flowers brought in nearly 53,000 guilders.
This may sound crazy to many people today, but note that part of what drove this bubble was variety: certain tulip bulbs were rarer than others, some exceedingly so. In some ways, the market was like the one for baseball cards. Rare bulbs commanded very high prices; because of that, investors were quick to speculate on other bulbs which had yet to become rare. And for another point of comparison, 1000 guilders in 1637 would be equal to just over $90,000 in today's dollars.

Then, quite suddenly, the tulip bulb market crashed:
It began in Haarlem, at a routine bulb auction when, for the first time, the greater fool refused to show up and pay. Within days, the panic had spread across the country. Despite the efforts of traders to prop up demand, the market for tulips evaporated. Flowers that had commanded 5,000 guilders a few weeks before now fetched one-hundredth that amount.
Following the collapse of the markets, tulip bulb growers were stuck with contracts for sales that no one wanted to honor. The Dutch government ultimately stepped in and rendered all of the contracts null and void by declaring them to be "bets," not legitimate contracts. Thus, the growers ate the losses in that regard, as did those who still held actual bulbs; many of those engaged in naked speculation were saved from making good on their promises to pay.

The Dot-Com Bubble at the end of the twentieth century (circa 1995 to 2001, or so) mirrored the Tulip Bubble in a number of ways. As was the case with tulip bulbs, growth in stock values for internet companies were fueled by naked speculation. And because of widespread success in the beginning--people accumulating small fortunes almost overnight--more and more people joined the fray, forcing prices higher and higher, as just about every start-up that had any sort of ptoential attracted flocks of investors.

Thus many of these internet stocks--in the form of IPOs--were for companies that had never turned a profit; they had potential maybe, they may have even had significant revenue streams, but their bottom lines were just not good. And like tulip bulbs, stocks in such companies were not purchased to hold, in the hopes that the company would grow and become strong. They were purchased in order to be sold for a profit, as quickly as possible. But the rolling effect of such strategies created a phony appearance of value in these companies, drawing in the gullible investor who believed the value was real and measurable, that the stock had an intrinsic value equal to or greater than it's market price (as was again the case for tulip bulbs).

To be sure, some of the companies that benefited from the Dot-Com Bubble really did have a strong future, Amazon.com and Google being two excellent examples of such. Amazon.com's share price is instructive in this regard. From under $5 per share at the end of 1997, Amazon stock climbed to over $100 per share by the end of 1999, then plummeted back down to under $8 per share by September of 2001. From there, the stock began a long climb upwards; it now trades at over $250 per share. But again, this was the exception, not the rule, for internet-based companies in the Dot-Com Bubble era.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Philosophical Gun Control: the mis-application of Arendt to the debate

The New York Times online is home to an extended blog known as The Stone, which "features the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless." Currently, The Stone is running a series of articles about guns, all tagged as "The Armed Society," for reasons we might easily predict:
In the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the resulting renewed debate on gun control in the United States, The Stone will publish a series of essays this week that examine the ethical, social and humanitarian implications of the use, possession and regulation of weapons.
The articles can all be found here. They are most definitely thoughtful, often long-winded, and tend to reflect the general mindset of academic and media elites. One of them caught my eye, mostly because it delves into the philosophies and opinions of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, two of my favorite subjects (especially the former). The author of this piece--"The Freedom of an Armed Society"--is someone named Firmin DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Thus, the piece is academic and heady. And since he is a frequent contributor to Common Dreams, his political views are expectedly progressive. So let's get to it.

DeBrabander begins with a recap of Sandy Hook, the state of guns and gun control today, and the following pronouncements:
As ever more people are armed in public, however — even brandishing weapons on the street — this is no longer recognizable as a civil society. Freedom is vanished at that point.  
And yet, gun rights advocates famously maintain that individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty. Deeper reflection on their argument exposes basic fallacies.
His two principle claims are 1) the prevalence of guns in public is destroying (has destroyed) freedom, and 2) arguments in favor of "an armed society" are flawed. As a writer and amateur philosopher (meaning I don't get paid to wax philosophical), my expectations for this piece are set: I want to see a demonstration of both claims.

For the first, DeBrabander turns immediately to Hannah Arendt, arguing that Arendt speaks directly to this issue, the effect of weapons on freedom. She says--according to DeBrabander--that guns "undermine equality" by introducing hierarchy into society and that guns "chasten speech" because their presence silences dissent.

With regard to the idea of the hierarchy spoken of here, DeBrabander employs something of a strawman. He criticizes the NRA for arguing that visible guns make society more polite--since such a compulsion to be polite is not consistent with freedom at all, a point which is most certainly correct--under the auspices of change: this is what would happen if all were armed in public. But the hierarchy he identifies is that of the armed versus the unarmed. If--theoretically--all are armed (visibly so, necessarily) there is no hierarchy as a matter of definition. He speaks of "basic fallacies"  in the arguments of gun rights advocates, yet opens with one of his own.

His argument for the idea that guns "chasten speech" drops the pretense of a fully armed society entirely and instead switches to public assembly, typified by the Arab Spring movements and the Occupy Wall Street movement. DeBrabander very obviously believes that the OWS movement meant something, that it was a powerful example of what can be achieved via non-violent protests. What did it achieve? I'm not sure. Regardless, he continues by offering a what-if on the OWS movement:
Imagine what this would have looked like had the protestors been armed: in the face of the New York Police Department assault on Zuccotti Park, there might have been armed insurrection in the streets. The non-violent nature of protest in this country ensures that it can occur.
It's something of a fair point, but in support of what argument? There were all kinds of Tea Party-type rallies in this country in 2009 and 2010. And let's be fair, plenty of the people attending these rallies were (and no doubt still are) firmly in the pro-2nd Amendment camp. People like DeBrabander latch on to one incident of open carry at an Obamacare rally (while simultaneously ignoring all sorts of transgressions at OWS sites) as evidence of some sort of implied violence. Yet, there were no armed conflicts at these various Tea Party gatherings, even though people at some of them carried weapons or had them nearby (by the way, this is not intended to be an argument for open carry at all).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A brief history of Nimrods

Call someone a nimrod today in the United Sates (or Canada, or other English-speaking countries) and they'll likely be unhappy about it, take it as an insult as a matter of course, even though Nimrod is still used as a proper name in many parts of the world. The source of the word--the name--is the Bible. Nimrod is mentioned in Genesis (10:8-12), I Chronicles (1:10), and Micah (5:6). From Genesis (KJV):
8 And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. 
9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. 
10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.
Cush was the grandson of Noah, making Nimrod the great-grandson of Noah. The second portion of verse 9--"wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the lord"--indicates that Nimrod became something of an ideal in this regard, as in "you're as great a hunter as Nimrod." It would have been--and still is, in some circles--high praise, no doubt.

In some Rabbinical traditions, however, Nimrod is also supposed to be the one responsible for the building of the Tower of Babel. In such narratives, Nimrod begins as the great hunter, becomes a great king, but then ceases to honor God, turning instead to idolatry with himself the new centerpiece of worship. The Tower of Babel is referred to as "the House of Nimrod." Nimrod's rebellion against God (he also supposedly tried to have Abraham killed, on more than one occasion) is typified by the construction of the Tower, dedicated to his (Nimrod's) glory, not that of God. And this bares out the original meaning of the Semitic word מרד (MRD), the root word of nimrod: to rebel.

Thus, Nimrod means both "great hunter" and "rebellious" (in a negative sense) in these traditions. His story is one of a fall from grace, of a great man who goes bad. Ultimately, Nimrod is slain by Esau, older brother of Jacob and another legendary hunter.

There are also theories about Nimrod that equate him with both Gilgamesh and Marduk of Babylonian lore. Both were great hunters, too--particularly Gilgamesh--though the similarity of Nimrod and Marduk's names is suggestive, as well. Additionally, the Etemenanki ziggurat--supposed by some to be the actual Tower of Babel, or at least the inspiration for the story--was dedicated to Marduk. Others believe Nimrod is also Orion the Hunter of Greek mythology, that the constellation of Orion is actually Nimrod, though there is little evidence of this.

All in all, Nimrod's pedigree is impressive. Despite his ultimate fall, Nimrod's name references a mighty legendary figure. And in the Christian tradition, little of the above was common knowledge, beyond what was specifically recorded in the Old Testament books. Thus, the "mighty hunter" appellation held sway for the most part.

As such, Nimrod was a good name for anything involved in hunting. The British Royal Navy, for instance, christened six HMS Nimrods from 1799 to 1915. In the United States, a number of private ships were also named Nimrod. Most of them were fishing vessels; many were actually whalers. Both usages--as military ships and as fishing ships--fit perfectly with the idea of a mighty hunter. But note that the name became far less common for ships after the 19th century. The last British ship so named was launched in 1915.

The most famous ship to be named Nimrod was indeed a British one, but it was a private fishing vessel, a sealer to be precise, built in Dundee, Scotland and launched in 1865. In 1907, at the ripe old age of forty-one, the ship was purchased by Ernest Shackleton for use in his upcoming expedition to Antarctica. Shackleton initially wanted to rename the ship, but ultimately left it as the Nimrod. Accordingly, Shackleton's failed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1907-1909 is known a the Nimrod Expedition.

Today, the name might suggest a foolhardy expedition, because of the slang meaning of nimrod. Could there be some sort of linkage here? Did nimrod begin to acquire it's slang meaning of simpleton, idiot, or foolish person after Shackleton's expedition returned? Today, the Nimrod Expedition is treated as something of a great success, despite it's failure to reach the Pole. It marched further South than any previous expedition, compiled a great deal of scientific information, and tested new means of traversing the continent. Still, when it returned the Royal Geographical Society was none too impressed, going so far as to doubt Shackleton's claims with regard to how far the expedition had penetrated. In addition, financing the expedition left Shackleton deeply in debt; ultimately he was bailed out with a grant from the government for some £20,000, not exactly a small amount in 1910.

On top of all this, many viewed Shackleton as something of an upstart, as compared to well-heeled explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Carl Anton Larsen. Shackleton had been a member of Scott's previous expedition in 1904 and not acquitted himself well. The Nimrod Expedition was, in many ways, simply an attempt to prove himself.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The power of naming: Agenda 21 and the ICLEI

Agenda 21.

There, I said it. Cue the conspiracy stuff, whether real or imagined. Cue the mocking of the same. Because let's face it, mentioning Agenda 21 is dangerous business these days. Trying to decipher what it really is, what it really means, is no simple task as theories abound in this regard. Glenn Beck's recent release of a novel by the same name only makes the task more difficult. Beck's book is apparently a dystopian work that, though fictional, is based loosely on his interpretation of the real Agenda 21; I have not read it and have no plans to do so, even though it seems to be in the spirit of Orwell, one of my favorite authors. Additionally, it is fair to note that--according to one of the book's editors--Beck didn't write the book, himself:
At the time I was working on it, the manuscript belonged to its actual author, a woman named Harriet Parke, who lives a few minutes from my aunt. But a year and a few lawyers later, Glenn Beck purchased the right to call himself its creator, and Ms. Parke agreed to be presented as a ghostwriter.
Ghostwriting is nothing new, of course, but we mostly see it with works of non-fiction, with autobiographies and the like. Beck is doing nothing illegal here, though I have to say this stuff leaves a bad taste in my mouth; what exactly did Beck do, apart from see to it that the book was published? That said, the above mentioned editor's opinions on the matter are just as unsettling. She readily admits to enjoying the book, to it having "capable" writing and a "compelling" story; she says she would be proud to have her name associated with it, were it not for Beck's name on the cover.

That doesn't make a lot of sense. She doesn't like who Beck is, doesn't like his political opinions. I get that, she's far from alone in that regard. But the book itself, it's either good or its not. She says it is good, and that should be enough in my humble opinion. But alas, ideology takes center stage everywhere, these days.

And in that regard, the editor cites Beck's real-world take on the real-world Agenda 21 (an agenda for the 21st century), a United Nations "non-binding agreement" between signatories to it for the integration of "environment and development concerns" in order to achieve "the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future." The over-arching program? So-called sustainability, economic and otherwise. Noble words, those. Noble goals, too. Achievable? Probably not.

Regardless, the bone of contention as it were is a portion of Agenda 21 that many see as being steadily implemented already in local communities (this portion is chapter 7, not 4 as the writer at Salon indicates). It's the "one world government" fear, writ small, as the language of Agenda 21 creeps into government policies until it is omnipresent. But is it a legitimate fear, or not?

Well, look at the Fort Lauderdale Department of Building and Planning/Zoning. Whoops, sorry. Now it's the Department of Sustainable Development. All building activities are subsumed within it. Fort Lauderdale's southern neighbor--Miami-Dade County--has an Office of Sustainability as well, which subsumes the offices of the Agricultural Manager, Consumer Services, Economic Development & International Trade, Film & Entertainment, Planning & Zoning, and Small Business Development into it. That's a pretty big nut, too. The OOS (Office of Sustainability) for Miami-Dade was created in 2009. Then, it had minimal formal power, though it was a part of all sorts of meetings. Now, county projects go through the OOS, first and foremost.

But forget the original question--is it a legitimate fear?--for a moment and consider just the mechanism: language, changing language to achieve a result. When did Fort Lauderdale create its Department of Sustainable Development? I'm not sure. As I said, Miami-Dade's came into being in 2009. But the county has been a member of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability (the localized arm of Agenda 21) for some time prior to that. Fort Lauderdale is also a member of ICLEI.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Of school shootings, pompous asses, and humanity

I have three children, aged fourteen, twelve, and five. The youngest is in kindergarten. She loves her school, her classmates, and her teachers. It's one of the most magical periods in life, the early years of schooling. Every day is full of promise, likely to have moments of wonder and joy, along with some of sadness and pain. My daughter troops into class every day, gets her chair, hangs up her back-pack (Hello Kitty), and takes out her homework. She puts the last in the proper place by the teacher's desk, returns to her table and then usually puts out her table-mates' journals.

I watch this routine from the doorway, blow her a kiss, and say goodbye, with a promise to see her soon. From there, school begins in earnest, as parents make their way out of the school. When I pick her up at the end of the school day, I get a play by play of the day's activities and events. Always thrilling, both for her and for me, as her eyes are--more often than not--bright with happiness and satisfaction.

But one recent day had one of those moments of sadness and pain I mentioned above. Nothing all that tragic in the grand scheme of things and--in the balance--a fine and positive experience. I picked her up as usual and she immediately informed me of a "big problem." Apparently, she and another child in her class--a very cute little boy whom I had met previously--collided on the playground. My daughter's head and the boy's lip were the points of impact. She explained to me that it hurt "a lot" and that "there was blood." The teacher even had to take the boy to the office for treatment.

As we walked to my car, we came upon this same boy waiting for his bus. He had a pack of ice on his face and I could see his seriously fat lower lip, along with some dried blood around it. I said hi and asked him if he was okay, while my daughter waved to him meekly. What he said (worth remembering):
It still hurts a lot. I'm just glad [my daughter] wasn't hurt bad.
Later, the school security guard--who makes sure the little ones get to the right buses from their classrooms--told me that this little boy told her the very same story about his accident: he was "glad the girl wasn't hurt."

My daughter gave him a brief hug goodbye and when we returned to school on Monday (this had been a Friday), the boy was in fine shape and both he and my daughter went about their usual business. The teacher also gave me the same story about the accident, no one's fault, some tears, some blood, both children worried about the other.

I've been clinging to this memory throughout the day, in the wake of the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, where some twenty young children were gunned down in their classrooms, along with teachers and other school employees. Those children--apparently, most were Kindergartners--were no different than my child and her classmates. Innocent, wonder-filled, ready to experience life, and more than capable of empathy, kindness, and honor.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Regulatory cliff? More like a continuing Ice Age...

While "fiscal cliff" talk continues to dominate discussions in DC and in punditry-land, there is another kind of a cliff to worry about. Some GOP lawmakers are now making noise about the delayed implementation of new rules--regulations--by bureaucracies like the EPA, delayed in order to give Obama some cover during the recent election season, that is now no longer needed. It is, in short, full steam ahead:
In recent weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules to update water quality guidelines for beaches and deal with runoff from logging roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, has proposed long-delayed regulations requiring auto makers to include event data recorders — better known as “black boxes” — in all new cars and light trucks beginning in 2014.  
The administration also has initiated several rules to implement its health care overhaul, including a new fee to cushion the cost of covering people with pre-existing conditions.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Once upon a time, President Obama promised an overhaul of the countless regulations that afflict businesses and citizens, alike, in the United States. That job fell to Cass Sunstein, who was appointed Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a post he stepped away from in August of this year. The appointment wasn't well-received by some on both sides of the aisle--Sunstein has some anti-regulatory leanings and some wacky views about animal rights--but ultimately he was confirmed to the post.

In January of 2011, Obama signed Executive Order 13563, entitled "Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review." And he took to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to explain what he supposedly intended (and had already accomplished):
This order requires that federal agencies ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth. And it orders a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive...

Despite a lot of heated rhetoric, our efforts over the past two years to modernize our regulations have led to smarter—and in some cases tougher—rules to protect our health, safety and environment. Yet according to current estimates of their economic impact, the benefits of these regulations exceed" their costs by billions of dollars.
Half way through 2011, Sunstein's office released this report-- the "2011 Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations and Unfunded Mandates on State, Local, and Tribal Entities"--trumpeting the above successes and actually quantifying the costs, savings, and benefits of these efforts. In it, Sunstein claims that "major rules" cost less than $62 billion annually, while providing at least $131 billion in benefits (maybe as much as $655 billion). That's a helluva trade-off.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Union thuggery lives on

Steve Crowder, self-proclaimed conservative comedian and occasional FoxNews and HuffPo contributor, got a mouth full of union fist yesterday in Lansing, Michigan. There was a rather large group gathered there--thanks to various unions--to protest the Michigan legislature's consideration of making Michigan a "right to work" State (the legislation ultimately passed). Crowder, operating out of the tent of a group in favor of the legislation, was asking various opponents of the measure about their views, probably with a bit of aggression as his wont. But that's not a reason for a beat down. Watch:


It's like going back in time, isn't it? And to borrow a phrase, "now we see the violence inherent in the system!" There's no justification for it, no excuse, but don't expect anything to come from this. It will be forgotten in short order. The guy who attacked Crowder? Why, he's probably a good family man, pushed to the brink by the evil 1%, or some such thing.

Meanwhile, a Democratic lawmaker in Michigan promises "there will be blood."

The Administration, of course, is on the side of the thugs and those calling for violence. And the President himself said one of the most ironic things I've ever heard from the mouth of any President, ever:
“You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics,” Obama added to applause and cheers from the crowd. “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
I say "ironic," because the last part--in bold--is very much the situation created by Obama's policies. All of the job growth he's been touting is in low-wage jobs, part-time jobs, mostly sucked up by the old and the young, not those in the middle, those with families to feed. And now ObamaCare is making the situation even worse, as many companies are being forced to either decrease their full-time work force or decrease their total work-force, in order to make the numbers work with the increased health insurance costs they will soon face. As Dan Danner said in his USA Today op-ed, "Replacing one full-time position with two part-time positions is not job creation."

Cheers, all.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Remaking America through Common Core Standards

Back in 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers announced a nation-wide initiative entitled "The Common Core State Standards Initiative." Basically, the idea behind the initiative is to establish nationwide standards for achievement in public schools that fully prepare students for college and/or careers. From the CCSS website:
These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards: 
  • Are aligned with college and work expectations; 
  • Are clear, understandable and consistent; 
  • Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills; 
  • Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards; 
  • Are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
  • Are evidence-based.
Sounds reasonable. There are two divisions of standards: mathematics and English language arts. The mathematics standards are rigorous and based on the traditional progression of learning from basic number theory--number lines and counting--to advanced theory like algebra and statistics, though there is an added element (at the high school level) wherein mathematics instruction must include applications to real-world issues:
The high school standards emphasize mathematical modeling, the use of mathematics and statistics to analyze empirical situations, understand them better, and improve decisions. For example, the draft standards state: “Modeling links classroom mathematics and statistics to everyday life, work, and decision-making. It is the process of choosing and using appropriate mathematics and statistics to analyze empirical situations, to understand them better, and to improve decisions. Quantities and their relationships in physical, economic, public policy, social and everyday situations can be modeled using mathematical and statistical methods. When making mathematical models, technology is valuable for varying assumptions, exploring consequences, and comparing predictions with data.”
Okay in theory, I guess. But pretty much pointless--and time-consuming--if students are less than successful in grasping the more advanced ideas. Because at the end of the day, one needs to be proficient in algebra, geometry, and statistics before one starts applying them to real world problems.

The standards for English language arts are even more problematic. And more controversial. Recently, there was this story in the Washington Post. From it:
As states across the country implement broad changes in curriculum from kindergarten through high school, English teachers worry that they will have to replace the dog-eared novels they love with historical documents and nonfiction texts...
The new standards, which are slowly rolling out now and will be in place by 2014, require that nonfiction texts represent 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary schools, and the requirement grows to 70 percent by grade 12.
Those percentages are found in this document on page five. And as the above piece indicates, there is some consternation over what will stay and what will go. Because while the standards are voluntary (45 States have adopted the standards), President Obama made them near-mandatory by tying their adoption (or other "approved" standards) to federal education dollars and waivers for NCLB in 2011. And that very much points to what would be a set of nationwide standards, including lists of "approved" books and the like:
Neal McCluskey of the libertarian Cato Institute, said concerns of lawmakers like Haley may have seemed far-fetched a few years ago — states voluntarily signed on to the standards, after all — but Obama's insistence on tying the Common Core to No Child waivers and billions in federal grants shows that "it is not the least bit paranoid" to say the federal government wants a national curriculum.
Thus, the list of reading materials approved in the Common Core State Standards moves to the forefront. First, let's note what the goals are, with regard to English language arts:
  • Through reading a diverse array of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informational texts in a range of subjects, students are expected to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective. Because the standards are building blocks for successful classrooms, but recognize that teachers, school districts and states need to decide on appropriate curriculum, they intentionally do not offer a reading list. Instead, they offer numerous sample texts to help teachers prepare for the school year and allow parents and students to know what to expect at the beginning of the year. 
  • The standards mandate certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare. The standards appropriately defer the many remaining decisions about what and how to teach to states, districts, and schools.
Note the second bullet point's quite explicit language: "mandated content." The last bit--about deferring remaining decisions--comes across as hollow, if we take a look at the actual mandated content for grades K-12. The lists are extensive, with subheadings like "poetry," "drama," and "informational texts." There's not a whole lot of room left for additional readings, from what I can see. So what we have here is--given Obama's actions--a federally mandated reading list, a list of what shall be read by students throughout the entirety of their public school careers.

And frankly, that's just stupid. Asinine, even. Why this book and not that book? Who says one has more to teach than the other? Suppose a teacher is more comfortable teaching the material from a no longer approved classic novel? And this is to say nothing of the decrease in literature in order to add more "informational" texts. Who says doing so will improve education, will benefit students in a meaningful--and measurable--way?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

California Federation of Teachers: telling it like it ain't

Have you seen the new Ed Asner-narrated video yet? It's very well done, very forceful, especially with the added gravitas of Asner's voice. Entitled Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale, it's on the home page of the California Federation of Teachers (an arm of the American Federation of Teachers). There was a link to the video on the AFT's webpage as well (cached version), but it has been removed. Why? No doubt partly because at one point in the video, the "rich" person is shown urinating on everyone else. Lovely image, that. And true to the title, the video is very much a fairy tale, but let's watch it first before we delve into the nonsense it's propagating:


First, I should note that the video has since been edited by the CFT to remove the stream of urine coming from "rich guy" and "trickling down" on everyone else. That scene was at about the 2:54 mark of the video. If you listen carefully you can still hear the sound of it, though, as that wasn't edited out. Here's a picture of the scene, as originally created:


Again, a lovely image. But let's move on to the actual content of the video, the "fairy tale" it is telling.

The basic story line is simple: once upon a time, everyone paid their fair share, there was plenty of money for services (firefighters, teachers, roads, etc.), and everyone was happy. But all of that changed because rich people got greedy (well, even more greedy) and stopped paying their fair share (via tax cuts and tax loopholes). Thus, there was less money for the services everyone else needed (rich people just paid for private services), meaning fewer teachers, firefighters, policemen, and so on. But--again, according to the video--even that wasn't good enough for the rich people, so they stopped building factories and the like and instead poured their money into Wall Street, where they made even more money. So at this point in time--in the fairy tale--the rich have oodles and oodles more money than even they had in the past, while everyone else is far worse off.

When people begin to question this supposedly vast dichotomy of wealth between the 1% and the 99% (the video is very clear on these numbers), rich people proceed to buy up newspapers and TV stations in order to lie to the rest of the people about how everyone can be rich and about how all that is happening is quite fair.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The long march to collapse

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is--to put it mildly--a heavily debated topic, every since Gibbon's classic work by the same name. I'm not going to venture an opinion--though I certainly have one--on the topic, per se. I bring it up only as a lead in for the events that occurred under the rule of the Emperor Diocletian, from 284 to 305 c.e. A scant 21 years, short by some standards, quite long by others.

Diocletian became Emperor via proclamation: the army declared him Emperor and he successfully fought off other claimants to the throne (specifically Carinus, brother to the suddenly deceased Emperor Numerian, who had ruled for but a year). Diocletian was of humble origins, born not in Rome or even Italy, but in the province of Dalmatia (now Croatia). Like other Emperors of the period, his path to the throne was via the military. Emperor Carus--father of Numeria--had been born in Gaul, though educated in Rome, and had moved from leading the Praetorion Guard to the throne. Beset on all sides with foes and potential foes, leading the Empire meant defending it, thus the Roman army was the principle source of power: it could make or break an Emperor at the drop of a hat (or the drop of a laurel wreath, to be less anachronistic).

But when Diocletian took the throne, the Empire was in turmoil within, as well. Revenues were down and collection of such was sporadic, at best. There was a lack of continuity from province to province, both with regard to leadership and laws. Much of this was the fault of the continuous warring of Emperors and generals, to be fair, but the situation had reached something of a tipping point, as Diocletian found himself barely able to finance continued campaigning (in a war-sense, not an election-sense).

In the early part of this year, there was quite a bit of buzz about Diocletian, thanks to an exchange between Ron Paul and Paul Krugman, covered here by John Aziz at Azizonomics. The exchange in full:


A transcript of the exchange can be found here. Paul Krugman says:
I’m not a defender of the economic policies of the Emperor Diocletion, so let’s just make that clear.
To which Paul replies:
Well you are, in a way you are. That's exactly what you're defending.
So, what economic polices are they talking about, here? What did Diocletian actually do, in this regard? Simply put, he raised taxes on the upper classes, expanded government bureaucracies, stomped on or took over businesses he viewed as monopolies, handed out food to the poor, and issued the Edict on Maximum Prices. The last made coinage worth more--twice then-current levels--relative to goods, even though newly minted coins had a lower real value. In effect, it slashed all prices by 50% and made it a crime to raise them (punishable by death).

Ron Paul's point is that--aside from the obvious parallels of bureaucratic and entitlement growth--Krugman is also advocating inflationary policy via an ill-conceived expansion of the money supply that debases the currency even further, that destroys wealth at all levels of society by allowing inflation to outpace saving rates as a matter of course.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A pattern of corruption under Obama

Dick Cheney's ties to Halliburton were forever a problem during his tenure as Vice-President. Despite the fact that he had divested himself of Halliburton stock and was never in a position to personally profit from contracts awarded to Halliburton, the issue was brought up repeatedly by critics of the Bush Administration. Indeed, it continues to be brought up the hard-core Left, who make it a point to never forget the imaginary transgressions of their opponents. The real transgressions of those on their "side"? They don't even notice these, or offer up pathetically weak excuses like "that's just how it works."

Let's review a few of these.

First, there is the SIGA scandal, largely unknown to most because the mainstream media had no interest in covering it, in doing actual investigative journalism. SIGA was awarded a contract to develop and supply a special-case vaccine for smallpox, a vaccine that can never be actually tested and that has a rather short shelf life. Controlled by people with close ties to the Obama Administration--Ron Perelman--it initially received the contract as a small business, thus allowing the process to avoid Big Pharm. But when it came to light that SIGA did not actually qualify as a small business, the Administration produced a nonsensical narrative about how SIGA was the only viable choice. Based on the contract, SIGA stock price soared:
But the entire episode plays like one big swindle. A next to useless product is ginned up, a bid for that product is handed out to a company designed to get the bid and nothing else, then the stock--having risen sufficiently, based on a phony large number--is sold off. Now the stock is in the toilet and the principles are loading up again, knowing that the lesser deal can be ramped up in the future, after the dust settles, and the game can just be repeated. Some would call this a classic "pump and dump" scenario.
Then there is Solyndra. Apart from the outright stupidity of the Administration throwing money at a loser of a company for no other reason than to appear environmentally conscious, there was real scandal in the story, scandal that was--again--ignored by mainstream media. It revolved around Steven Spinner, a major Obama fundraiser who was given a cushy job at DOE overseeing the loan program, and his wife Allison Spinner who was a partner at the law firm representing Solyndra. Despite signing a pledge to not be directly involved with any company represented by his wife's firm, Steven Spinner did exactly the opposite, using his position at the DOE to push through the loan for Solyndra for the benefit of his wife's firm. And for his actions, Spinner was ultimately awarded another cushy post at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

More recently, we have the case of the embattled Susan Rice, who once seemed a shoe-in for the position of Secretary of State. We know there was incompetence in her handling of Benghazi, if not outright deception, but some might wonder what scandal, similar to any of the above, there was. Well, the largely unreported scandal with Rice doesn't involve Benghazi, at all. Rather, it has to do with the Keystone XL Pipeline. Remember that?